Virginia's senior U.S. senator, Republican John W. Warner, said last night that he accepts the decision by GOP leaders to determine the fate of Majority Leader Trent Lott on Jan. 6, despite Warner's earlier warning that waiting would harm the party and the nation.
Warner, who will lead the Armed Services Committee when the Senate convenes Jan. 7, was one of the first senators to call for an early meeting of his GOP colleagues in the wake of the scandal involving Lott's comments about South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. Lott said this month that the nation would be better off had Thurmond won the presidency in 1948, when he ran on a segregationist platform.
Republican leaders in the Senate announced yesterday that they would meet early next month to decide whether to seek Lott's ouster as majority leader. In a statement, Warner said he "respectfully accepts the leadership's decision."
"Last Friday, Senator Lott pledged to the nation 'to contribute to a society where every American has an equal opportunity to succeed,' " Warner said. "Today's decision by the Republican leadership gives him a fair opportunity to hear the views of his colleagues and to ask for support to achieve his goal."
That contrasts with Warner's comments on CNN on Sunday, when he said Republicans should decide quickly whether to replace Lott.
"Should we leave him dangling out there for another two weeks or so before we come back on the 7th? I say no. I don't think it's fair to the party," Warner said then. "And to leave this very fine leader . . . just out there by himself and leaving it to the journalists and the people to all pick us off individually and singularly, I think, is not in the interest of the nation."
Warner has not called for Lott's resignation as majority leader and has not said whether he will argue for a change in leadership Jan. 6. Republican sources on Capitol Hill said Warner believes a decision must come soon.
"He believes we're being nibbled to death here," one source said. "We ought to be able to talk about what we are going to do for the country. Warner is tired of turning on the television every day and seeing, 'Will Trent stay? Will Trent go?' It needs to stop."
In the statement yesterday, Warner hinted at his displeasure.
"We have the integrity of the institution which we serve, the United States Senate, to preserve," the statement said. "This forthcoming conference will, I am certain, chart a responsible course."
Virginia's junior senator, George Allen (R), said he supports the decision to meet Jan. 6 to "decide how we best bring closure to the national uproar."
Allen did not say whether he thought Lott should step aside. Last week, Allen came to Lott's defense, calling him a "decent, honorable man." Today's statement was more critical.
"President Bush was right when he said that Senator Lott's remarks were offensive and that they do not reflect the spirit of our country. I could not agree more," Allen said. "I abhor discrimination. . . . Senator Lott must understand that his comment was offensive to many Americans, particularly those who have been personally touched by the viciousness of segregation."
Allen also has been criticized by civil rights groups at times.
In 1997, as Virginia governor, Allen proclaimed April Confederate History and Heritage Month and called the Civil War "a four-year struggle for [Southern] independence and sovereign rights." That was derided by Virginia's NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, some of whose leaders urged him to resign.